Indian athlete Zeba Bano has fearlessly pursued her love of martial arts despite societal shackles that tried to hold her back.
The 23-year-old's courage has led to success in her young MMA career, and she will make her first appearance in the big leagues against Thai phenom Nat "Wondergirl" Jaroonsak on Friday, May 20.
That evening, "Fighting Queen" will put her perfect 6-0 slate on the line in a strawweight bout at "ONE 157: Petchmorakot vs. Vienot" – and she's hoping to inspire others using her new global platform.
Find out how the rising star went against the grain to forge a career in combat sports and earn a contract with the world’s largest martial arts organization.
'I always wanted to do something different in life'
Bano was born in Lucknow, the capital city of the Indian state Uttar Pradesh.
She grew up there with her parents and five siblings – three older sisters and a younger brother and sister – until the family moved to Delhi when she was 8 years old.
The Indian was always an athletic youngster and believed sports were her calling, but she didn't exactly take the most common path.
"When I was in school, martial arts was not popular, and I didn't have much knowledge about it," Bano recalls. "But after seeing it for the first time, I took interest in it and decided to join wushu."
From there, "Fighting Queen” began to realize her passion for combat sports.
She greatly enjoyed martial arts training and continued to develop her skills, even though it wasn’t a popular hobby for most of her peers at the time.
“I wanted to pursue sports since my childhood, and that’s why I took it forward," she said. "I always wanted to do something different in life."
From wushu success to MMA recognition
The young Indian athlete thrived in her wushu training and quickly began rising through the ranks.
She claimed numerous accolades in the striking arts and built a solid foundation for her future professional career.
"I competed at district and national levels in wushu. I was in the Sports Authority of India (SAI) for five years and trained in Delhi," Bano says.
"I won two gold medals at the national level. Once I reached the senior level, I started training in kickboxing, where I won four golds at the national level again. I also won the flyweight title at the K-1 competition in Kerala."
However, Bano didn't feel like she had a real future in the standup disciplines
Her impressive achievements had brought her very little recognition, so she turned her sights to mixed martial arts, where she instantly began to feel like her efforts were being rewarded.
"When I used to win medals at the national level (in striking), no one would seem to care. But after joining MMA, I started getting noticed. So, I decided to pursue MMA," she explained.
"I started my MMA training in 2014. It was not popular in India then. My ground game used to be really weak. Only because of my hard work have I been able to make name for myself.
"In 2017, I met my coach, during a competition in Kerala, and since then, I have been training with him."
Battling against old stereotypes
Despite her clear talent for martial arts and her success in wushu, kickboxing, and MMA, it was not clear sailing for Bano.
Not everybody was pleased with her career in combat sports, believing that fighting wasn't something a young woman should pursue.
Fortunately, those closest to the rising star continued to back her choices.
"My family fully supported me, but our (wider) relatives were against it since we are from the Muslim community. They didn’t like me wearing shorts and (sleeveless shirts), and they would say mean things to my father," Bano said.
"Some members of my family have told me several times that if my limbs get broken, I will be of no use, and then who would marry me."
Still, the young athlete's desire never waned. She decided to one-up her detractors by staying the course and doing everything she could to achieve her goals.
In fact, those doubts spurred her on even more, and the 23-year-old used them to fuel her difficult journey toward martial arts success.
"I used to get really angry with that, but it used to motivate me, too, and it helped me to reach where I am today," Bano stated.
“I actually want to thank the people who have tried to demotivate me. They have played an important role in helping me to reach (this point). Instead of minding other people's business, they should motivate their children to do well."
Reaching ONE and speaking out
Now owning a 6-0 record and a contract with ONE Championship, Bano has shown that it's not the opinions of others that count – it's self-belief, hard work, and commitment.
That mindset has given "Fighting Queen" an outlet to share her story, and she wants to be a positive role model for young women in similar situations, showing that they can also break the mold.
"Even today, people don't want to let girls compete in martial arts," the Indian says.
"But through this huge platform, I want to represent India on the global stage and want to be a source of inspiration for people."
Her first assignment in the ONE circle against "Wondergirl" will be far from easy, but Bano is used to meeting difficult challenges head-on.
And while there were some people who tried to derail her dreams, there was also plenty of encouragement from her compatriots back home.
With that in mind, "Fighting Queen" wants to offer up a stunning debut to repay that support and make an emphatic statement in the women's strawweight division.
"I am really excited. Now that my hard work is bearing fruits, I am really looking forward to my debut," she added.
"I want to thank all the Indian fans who have been supporting me. I have only been able to reach here because of their prayers. I will raise the tricolor (Indian flag) after my win and make everyone proud.
"It will be a huge achievement if the daughter of the land secures a victory for her nation. The ONE women's strawweight world title is my dream, and I will try my best to win it for India soon."
This story first published at ONEFC.com.